Great Books: Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy

First published in 1621, Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy is a treatise, an encyclopedia, a self-help manual and more besides. Remarkably ahead of its time, this treasure trove contains unbounded riches for new readers.
'Melancholy', 1894-1895 by Edvard Munch. He played a leading role in German expressionism.
'Melancholy', 1894-1895 by Edvard Munch. He played a leading role in German expressionism. Credit: Universal History Archive via Getty
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This year marks the 400th anniversary of a book which explores all aspects of a malady that, according to its author, ‘goes and comes upon every small occasion of sorrow, need, sickness, trouble, fear, grief, passion, or perturbation of the mind.’ Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy is a cornerstone of seventeenth-century literature and the crowning achievement of a Renaissance man; one who possessed a great brain but also, by his own admission, ‘a burdened heart.’

Burton was afflicted by melancholy – or, as we might call it today, depression – his whole life. Its cause was attributed to an imbalance of the four humours – sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric and melancholic – brought on by an excess of black bile. Rather than be bowed and beaten by melancholy, Burton tried to make sense of it. His project was not one of half-measures. He set himself the Herculean task of collecting, collating and fully comprehending everything of significance relating to melancholy since antiquity. Only then could he hope to rid himself of the disease or lessen its cruel blows, and provide the means for others to assuage their own pain. 

Burton (1577-1640) was a polymathic scholar and clergyman who lived and studied in Christ Church College, Oxford, for the majority of his life. He never married, seldom travelled ‘but in Map or Card,’ and lived ‘a silent, sedentary, solitary, private life for myself and for the Muses.’ His cloistered existence (‘penned up most part in my study’) suited his academic needs and allowed him to pursue his immense labour of love. 

When his book was published in 1621 it was a resounding success. But it was far from finished. Burton continued to work at it over the next two decades – not editing it but expanding it – and it went through five subsequent editions in his lifetime, each one thicker than the last. A posthumous sixth edition appeared in 1651, bulked out with additions that Burton had left behind. Had Burton lived longer, it is easy to imagine him returning to his book and coming up with a wealth of further material to graft on or blend in.

In his protracted preface, Burton assumes a persona for himself, that of Democritus Junior. He explains that he plans to complete the work of the so-called ‘laughing philosopher’ Democritus and offer a satirical study of all strains of melancholic madness in the world. The book’s other, shorter mission statement is encapsulated in the subtitle on the frontispiece: The Anatomy of Melancholy promises to define what melancholy is and then examine ‘all the kinds, causes, symptoms, prognostics, and several cures of it.’ Primed with this information, the reader then embarks on a journey that manages to be both edifying and entertaining.

The book unfolds through several sections or ‘partitions.’ The first is devoted to the causes and effects of melancholy. There are clumps of miscellaneous facts: autumn is the most melancholy season, melancholy can be hereditary, and men are more prone to it than women (‘yet women misaffected are far more violent and grievously troubled’). Burton then analyses significant causes in more detailed subsections, from poverty and want to terrors and ‘affrights’ to bad air and bad angels. 

One segment on diet informs us that beef breeds ‘gross melancholy blood,’ cabbage ‘causeth troublesome dreams, and sends up black vapours to the brain,’ and black wines and other strong drinks are deleterious to those ‘inclined to head-melancholy.’ Several segments cover negative emotions such as shame, fear, anger, and that ‘incurable disease’ envy. But Burton gives priority to one topic: ‘There is no greater cause of melancholy than idleness,’ he argues. By extension, there is no better cure than keeping oneself occupied. Burton’s colossal undertaking was not only an attempt to produce a comprehensive account of melancholy, it was also his way of keeping ‘Mistress Melancholy’ at bay. ‘I write of melancholy,’ he said, ‘by being busy to avoid melancholy.’

Industriousness is just one of many cures discussed at length in Burton’s second partition. Other remedies range from the tried-and-tested (music, ‘merry company’, exercise, travel, pastimes, sleep, ‘friends’ confabulations’ and ‘a cup of wine or strong drink, if it be soberly and opportunely used’) to outmoded ‘Physic’ such as bloodletting, or the use of herbs, metals and precious stones as ‘averters’, ‘purgers’ and ‘correctors.’

A third and final partition focuses on what Burton considers the two main types of melancholy – Religious Melancholy and Love Melancholy. By this stage it has become clear that the book’s partitions are in fact porous. Topics and themes from one seemingly self-contained section spill out, overlap or blur into other material found elsewhere. Ideas and observations are constantly reprised and used as starting points for tangential meditations or parallel lines of enquiry. It constitutes a fitting way to grapple with the messy complexities and idiosyncrasies of the human condition. 

To chime with its quatercentenary, Penguin Classics has reissued the Anatomy in a handsome new edition. Copious explanatory notes decode its arcane terms, clotted syntax and italicised Latin and Greek quotations. However, there is still no getting around the fact it appears a thoroughly daunting reading experience. First and foremost, it is a hulking great tome which weighs in at nearly 1400 pages. A cursory glance at any of those pages will take in what looks like an impenetrable thicket of prose made up of meandering trains of thought. Unlike near-contemporary Francis Bacon’s smooth and succinct essays, Burton’s book seems dense, bloated and rambling. It has more in common with Montaigne’s Essais, another mammoth work revised and extended over the years and stuffed full of freewheeling reflections and looping digressions.

But perseverance pays, as does adopting a different reading approach. This is a work to dip into, not slog through from cover to cover. After a fashion, we begin to find method in Burton’s madness and follow the rhythms, textures and logic of his shape-shifting narrative. At one point he describes his technique thus: 

’tis not my study or intent to compose neatly, which an Orator requires, but to express myself readily & plainly as it happens. So that as a River runs sometimes precipitate and swift, then dull and slow; now direct, then per ambages [digressively]; now deep, then shallow; now muddy, then clear; now broad, then narrow; doth my style flow: now serious, then light; now comical, then satirical; now more elaborate, then remiss, as the present subject required, or at that time I was affected.’ 

Such lists proliferate throughout the book. We can play Burton at his own game here. The Anatomy is not just a book, it is a treatise, a treasure trove, an encyclopedia, a cornucopia, a Wunderkammer, a catch-all compendium, a self-help manual and a how-to guide. It covers cosmology, climatology, geography, meteorology, theology, mythology, astrology, poetry, history and moral philosophy. It includes extended riffs on dreams, digestion, bird migration, witches and magicians, the devil, the English gentry, and sexually deprived maids and nuns. And it has delighted and inspired legions of writers such as Samuel Johnson (who claimed it was the only book that took him out of bed two hours earlier than he wished), Laurence Sterne (who quoted chunks of it throughout Tristram Shandy), John Keats (who regarded it as his favourite book) and the likes of George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Jorge Luis Borges, Anthony Burgess and Philip Pullman. 

New generations of readers keep coming to the book to discover for themselves what riches it contains. Many of its medical theories have been debunked and dismissed as pseudoscience but others have stood the test of time. Psychologists and psychiatrists continue to find value in it. Anyone who shares its author’s ‘heavy heart’ can glean some source of comfort from it. ‘Be not idle,’ Burton reminds us on the last page. What better way than to immerse ourselves in his beguiling masterpiece.

Malcolm Forbes

Malcolm Forbes is a freelance writer and critic based in Edinburgh.

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